Skin Whitening…it’s a “thing” here

The white ideal of beauty is nothing new.  There have been far more intelligent people writing far more articulately about the media disseminating the idea that white is the ideal for longer than I’ve been alive.  I’ve read and even written about it during various classes at university and in grad school.

Even knowing all of this, I find it disturbing to have it shoved into my face on a regular basis here in Singapore.

Granted, there are a number of European and American stores here, and the advertising used for them is the same as in their home country.  Ditto perfumes, shoes, etc.  But I can’t help but notice that in a lot of home grown ads (such as the mall-specific ads at @313 during Christmas time–see below) also feature white people.

What I find very interesting is that this isn’t necessarily true when it’s a government sponsored ad, such as the pro-military ad campaign running on tv, buses, and billboards right now.  My friend Kirsten, who is Singaporean and thus more knowledgeable and articulate on this campaign, writes about it here.  These ads feature Singaporeans, rather than Caucasians.

But it isn’t just in advertising.  There is a slew of products aimed at women that are “whitening products.”

Deoderents, skin creams, make-up…all there to help you achieve lighter skin to reach the white ideal of beauty.

I find it profoundly disturbing that girls are being taught not just that they need to force their bodies into a certain mold in terms of weight, and dress a certain way, but that their skin itself–the color that they were born–can make them less or more attractive.

While the US is certainly guilty of playing up the white ideal as well, I’ve never seen a “whitening” cream–maybe I just didn’t look carefully enough, or because they are, in fact, less common there.  Friends in the US–let me know what you think.

At any rate…painkillers are kicking in and I know that I’m not making much sense, so I’m going to stop writing.  Please feel free to start a conversation on this in the comments, though!

Meanwhile, I won’t be trying any of those…considering how pale I am already, I might just turn invisible!


This entry was posted in Culture Shock, customs, Pictures, Shopping, Singapore. Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Skin Whitening…it’s a “thing” here

  1. Kirsten says:

    What I find amusing is that while Asia is pretty much obsessed with skin-whitening products (and you will see a lot of Asian women walking around in the sun with umbrellas so as not to get freckles or darken their skin), when I moved to New Zealand people there were crazy over tanning lotion!

    So I guess in a way I never really saw this skin whitening fad as that much of a racial thing.

    I think in Asia the skin whitening also comes from the olden days when many people – women included – had to work in the sun and in the fields and farms. As a girl, if you had white, flawless skin, it meant that your family was rich and well-off enough that you didn’t have to go out and work. Maybe that’s where it comes from as well as the “white is might” thing?

    But yes, I often find it strange that malls seem to go out of their way to make sure they find models who are white (or at least Eurasian). It seems very unnecessary, somehow. Perhaps it is from the view that if we used local models the ads would not be able to measure up to the international billboards and posters.

    The government would use Singaporeans (or at least people who LOOK like Singaporeans) because often their ads are about nation-building-type stuff, and so if they used white people they would get a WHOLE LOT of flak (or more flak than they’re getting now).

    • Crystal says:

      I think you’re right that it has to do with the appearance of wealth and not needing to work. I responded to Tiny Island’s comment with an anecdote about Ravi’s cousin and her daughter that is along those lines. You still see a lot in Indian personal ads that talk about a girl being “fair.”

      I guess it’s odd, since the first thing I did when I was planning my wedding was set up a spray tan date so that I’d “have some color” in my wedding pictures.

      A friend of a friend is a successful model and tv hostess here, as is her husband–both are white.

      I think what’s most surprising about this trend is that one of the positives (in my head) of living in Asia was that Elanor would grow up seeing more people on tv and in media that look like her. It’s a bit sad that it’s less true than I’d hoped.

  2. kierstens says:

    I find it disturbing that most of the ads for families tend to have an Asian woman, a child and a white man. Have you noticed that? What kind of fantasy is that playing into? How do Asian guys feel about that one?

    • Kirsten says:

      Oh, and when an Asian woman actually DOES go out with a white man in real life, they call you a Sarong Party Girl (SPG). *just can’t win*

    • Crystal says:

      I’ve noticed that too. It certainly feeds into a LOT of stereotypes.

      As a bi-racial family, part of me does like seeing families that (sort of) look like ours, but I was hoping that it would be part of a larger, more inclusive trend. You know, families of similar ethnic background, mixed backgrounds, etc. Not so much.

      I’ve actually asked Ravi if he thinks growing up in the US influenced his choice in partner (in that I’m white, and multiculturalism on tv in the US is still a relatively new thing…especially with Indians on US tv shows; there’s only a handful). He says not consciously, as he’s found Asian women attractive…but the issue has always been that Asian women he’s met have been culturally Asian and he’s very much culturally American; thus he has more in common with me (and other American girls, regardless of ethnicity).

  3. Zach Woods says:

    I am with Kirsten that this is an economics thing first and a racial thing second.

    Historical analysis bears this out – in the 18th Century in Europe, white pancake makeup was used by anyone who could afford it to help make them look like they did not have to work outside (this was the fashion for both men and women). In both colonial and other situations where the wealthy had light / white skin (pre-colonial India has pretty consistently had a light skinned ruling elite and progressively darker skinned lower classes – note how dark skinned the untouchables were / are), light colored skin typically aligned with both the ruling and the wealthy classes.

    These preferences have long standing historical basis (making them no less classist or racist . . .) and it is hard for any of us (light or dark skinned, wealthy or not) to see beyond these sorts of cultural constructs. When colonialism is thrown into this mix it only serves to reinforce these prejudices that much further.

    My thoughts on the military recruiting ads are that they are intentionally choosing darker skinned, or at least more “indigenous” looking models because, rightly or wrongly, consciously or subconsciously, they are expecting those folks to be less well off and therefore more likely to join the military. If the government regularly receives pressure to use more “indigenous” looking models then that just unintentionally reinforces their use for military ads (and probably many others that happen to also target less well off individuals (how many government ad campaigns target the wealthy? Not many!)).

    • Crystal says:

      Singapore is definitely not over it’s colonialism.

      I think it may also play into power. In the US, I was aware of white priveledge, but living here has taken it to a whole new level. As a white person in Singapore, by virtue of my non-Asian-ness, people make certain assumptions about my finances and status and I am accorded deference (or in stores, given extra attention as it’s assumed I have money to burn) in ways that I had only experienced in India before (and that was at a 5 star hotel…I hadn’t realized it was more pervasive than that).

      The interesting thing about the military ads is how “macho” they are. Granted, there is enforced conscription for 30 months here at the age of 18 and men have to pass physicals until they reach a certain age (any locals know how old? i want to say mid-30’s?) annualy. But the level of hypermasculinity in the ads made me question if women were even allowed to serve…Kirsten’s blog post on it was the only reason I’ve learned that they can. You never see women (or I’ve yet to, more accurately stated) in police or military uniforms.

      • It is also assumed that as a white person you have no problem complaining.

        I frankly do not think the prizing of whiteness and fairness in Asian cultures is about economics anymore and it is now really about a lack of confidence in the self and Asianess per se.

        Blogger extraordinaire Xia Xue is a Chinese woman who is blonde, frequently wears blue contacts and is married to a white man. I think she is very typical of this. She asserts that she is not trying to be white, that she is just trying soemthing different. And I believe her. But I have to question why “different” and “pretty” are signified by white traits as opposed to say her getting extremely tan and wearing Saris.

      • Crystal says:

        As a person who has no problem complaining, ever (grin) I can’t really comment on that.

        I know of Xia Xue. While I have no issue with the cosmetic changes she’s chosen to undergo…every woman has the right to define beauty for herself, I still find it interesting that the standard she has chosen to adhere to is more in line with white standards of beauty. I honestly find it sad that the most common cosmetic surgery in Asia is the eye surgery because again, it’s conforming to a different culture’s standard, rather than finding beauty within their own. The deep irony, of course, is that the petite Asian women are fetishized in the US (and I think Europe as well) and with the rise of Manga culture in the US and it’s growing popularity, you have plenty of white women trying to pull off the “Asian” look.

      • Crystal says:

        more to the point…every PERSON has the right to define beauty for themselves…sorry…I’m generally better at not being so heteronormative

  4. Hey! I just moved to Singapore from Boston too, though I’m originally from here.
    Anyhoo, the whitening product advertising aside, I too have noticed the near absence of local faces in Singaporean fashion spreads and advertising, especially for apparel.
    There was a time, before I left Singapore 9 years ago where there were very successful local models of various races, Chinese, Malay and Eurasian especially, but the market now appears to be awash in the white faces of models from other parts of the world who come to Asia to beef up their portfolios.
    The exception to this appears to be recent rash of models from China, particularly Liu Wen, but she is never just a yellow face, she is always identified as Liu Wen, the supermodel, ie. Asian is only good enough if the (white) international fashion industry says so.

    • Crystal says:

      I completely agree. I’ve read some local magazines, and I’ve particularly noticed in the Singaporean magazine aimed at moms of little kids “Young Parents” that the vast quantity of moms and kids in the images are white, even though it’s a SG magazine about SG families and SG values. It’s odd.

      Welcome to the blog! I can’t wait to read yours, and to hear the perspective of a fellow Bostonian on our new home!

    • Kirsten says:

      I was talking to a friend about this just today, and he has had some experience working in the advertising and design industry and was telling me that the latest fad now is “Pan-Asian” models, although he also hazarded a guess that despite it being a buzzword no one actually know what the f**k “Pan-Asian” is.

      But apparently it’s supposed to be “race-neutral”… another term that everyone uses but no one knows what the f**k it means.

      • If you go to Isetan Scotts you will be greeted with a GIANT billboard with three white women in Asian drag wishing you a happy lunar new year.
        Note to Isetan: A white girl with chestnut brown hair in a cheongsam is not pan-Asian, she’s in yellowface.

        @Kristen, the concept of Pan-Asian means that the model looks to be of mixed heritage and by that what is really meant is that the model looks like some combination of white and yellow.

        Other mixes do not count. Nadya Hutagalung and Rebecca Tan are examples of this. It seems now though that the favored look isn’t pan-asian anymore, it’s white.

        My favorite example of this today: Style: magazine has a spread on how to wear long hair. the model is white. its readership is probably not. You can’t do some of those things with Asian hair textures.

      • Crystal says:

        I hadn’t heard the term “yellow-face” before, but it’s absolutely dead-on.

        I was saying to my friend Mishelle today that one of the things I had (naively) hoped for in raising E here for a time is that she would be exposed to images of beauty that look more like her (she’s half Caucasian and half Indian) and have the chance to buy dolls and such that look like her, see kids on tv that look like her. That’s been a fairly giant FAIL.

      • Justine says:

        Pan-A·sian   /ˌpænˈeɪʒən, -ʃən/ Show Spelled
        [pan-ey-zhuhn, -shuhn] Show IPA

        1. of or pertaining to all Asian peoples.
        2. of or pertaining to Pan-Asianism.

        Nothing to do with ang mo at all.

  5. bookjunkie says:

    A friend of mine who is Indian and has naturally beautiful dark, tanned skinned and married to an Australian who is very pale, often got mistaken to be the domestic helper when she brings her kids down to the playground.

    Shadeism is indeed quite a terrible thing in Singapore. It is very much so among the Indian community, which is sad. My friend was actually told by relatives that it’s lucky her kids look more white like her husband. She’s chided when she brings her kids into the sun. Her hubby on the other hand loves her colour and laments that he is unable to tan.

    The Fair and Lovely Cream that i spotted at Mustafa always makes me cringe.

    • Crystal says:

      I had to respond to this to share a personal anecdote…Ravi has a cousin here in Singapore who has a daughter a bit older than E. We asked them to join us at a playdate at the zoo and the cousin said her husband didn’t like her taking her daughter out into the sun because it would make her darker.

      • bookjunkie says:

        yeah that’s really common among the Indian culture huh? all due to years and years of shadeism. I have seen stunning looking women think they are ugly just because of their skin colour…because they have been told so by relatives for years…..its so sad & so wrong.

  6. D says:

    i jus came across yoru blog through singapore actually’s and i love it~ however, as an singaporean chinese girl, and a very fair one at that, i have to disagree respectfully with your post’s implication here that skin-whitening is linked to asians wanting to look white in order to measure up to caucasian standards of beauty. fair skin has long been held the standard of beauty in east asian cultures, way before the influence of western beauty ideals. if asian women try these products and want to look fair, it’s definitely not caucasian beauties they are trying to ape, but fair-skinned ASIAN beauties. japanese, taiwanese have long been the go-to for fashion and make-up in singapore and east asia, and lately, korea too. it’s the actresses/models in these countries, who are usually very fair, as per typical ASIAN ideals of beauty, that women in asia aspire too in these past few decades. that’s why skin-whitening is popularized in singapore. i think you’re reading too much of the ‘racist’ issue into this here. asians don’t aspire to look caucasian to the extent westerners think they do sometimes. sure, big eyes, sharp noses are beauty trends in asia, but does that mean no asians were actually born with these facial traits? not everybody has to do plastic surgery like xiaxue to achieve these you know.

    i can honestly say that even the hair-dye-ing and coloured contacts isn’t an attempt to look caucasian. if anything, these are fashion trends, a playing around with different looks. we’re copying them from the asian trendsetters in korea, japan, taiwan etc., not copying caucasians. if anything, it’s these asian fashionistas and beauties asian girls are aspiring to, not caucasians.

  7. Pingback: Things I love about expat life… « Expat Bostonians

  8. Pingback: 7 Links Blog Project « Expat Bostonians

  9. Pingback: My Misconceptions about Expat Life « Expat Bostonians

  10. Pingback: 500 « Expat Bostonians

  11. Pingback: 500 « Expat Bostonians

  12. Pingback: Skin Whitening: Why I Think It’s Bollocks

  13. Pingback: The Uncomfortable Truth about Toys in Singapore | Expat Bostonians

Comments are closed.